By Valerie Yurk
Aging does cause brain activity to change – but that doesn’t mean it’s all downhill.
As neurologists look deeper into the effect of aging on the brain, they’ve developed new insights. Neurologist and cognition expert Darlene Howard, a professor emerita at Georgetown University who focused her research on the aging brain, said the new thinking involves three main points:
- Cognitive functioning does generally decline with age, but some people’s mental ability remains the same or can even improve.
- Older brains operate differently than younger brains, even while executing the same tasks.
- There is nothing that can stop age-related declines, but studies show that some people can slow the changes.
Here’s what does decline with age: reactive speed, most kinds of learning, working memory and word retrieval. At the same time, Howard said some functions like solving problems, making decisions and regulating emotions either stagnate or improve gradually.
Also, not all parts of the brain show less activity. Studies have found that while performing the same task, older people activate both sides of their brains while younger ones only activate one side; beyond that, the older people who use more of their brains to do activities perform just as well as younger ones.
It’s not impossible for older brains to function like their younger selves – but it can be a little harder, Howard explained.
Howard added that there are plenty of things that can prevent or slow the effects of aging on the brain. She said physical exercise, a balanced diet, social engagement and practicing reasoning skills have all been proven to ward off age-related declines.
That said, every person is different, and some will experience effects of aging more than others. The good news: Declines occur gradually, which means there is plenty of time to make lifestyle changes to slow the effects of aging on the brain.